Getting Help and Understanding
I’ll admit it. I need help. I often find myself requiring assistance. In fact, if my computer were to suddenly gain a mind of its own and refuse to save this document, I can tell you that I would be calling Trey or Ken or Gary
or Bruce. They understand what I do not when it comes to technology. I need help dressing at times. My wife can tell me whether or not that shirt, those pants and those shoes will work together. I need help with my humor at times. My kids steer me in the right direction often, even though they’ve misled me at times. I need help with directions often. Googlemaps has become a very good friend of mine since I have become a bishop.
These are of course silly needs when compared to the greater needs of life. We need help overcoming illness, living free from sin, dealing with unforgiving people and much more serious matters than computers and dress. The Bible is filled with demonstrations of God’s help for us. It is assumed through the words “grace” and “mercy”. The idea behind grace and mercy is that we need something that only God can supply. And he lovingly supplies us with much.
One such area of needed help is for help in prayer. We apparently do not always know the right subject matter or the manner in which to address a subject matter in prayer. We pray many different ways for all kinds of outcomes. We are told to “ask” of God. We pray our desires. We pray for justice and understanding and grace. We pray for his will to be done. We pray with a specific outcome in mind. We pray with a question-mark. We pray generically at times, “Do something Lord.” We pray for things to end (for Christ’s return) and we pray for things to continue (“Lord, improve our world or bring revival”).
Romans 8:26 reminds us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know what we ought to pray. Verse 34 tells us that Jesus himself, who has already done more than we could imagine does the same thing- intercedes for us. We really need help and the Son and Spirit willingly team up in bringing fruitfulness out of our weak and feeble prayers.
I guess there are two responses to getting that kind of help. One would be, “Great, I have someone to help me so I don’t need to even try very hard in this area since I have an on-call helper with my prayer.” The other response might be, “I need the help, but I also need greater understanding so I’m not constantly stumbling and bumbling along, offending here and missing the mark there in my prayer.” I respond like the latter. Whereas I know I often need help, I would prefer to know better how to pray in the process. I need to know what God wants me to be and say and do so I don’t need constant correction to my prayer because I keep going down dead end and wrong way prayer streets.
Ephesians 4:17 adjures us to cast off foolishness and “understand what the Lord’s will is.” The idea is that we are in need of having a better understanding of what God wants. We are not only to pray his will, but understand it. We are not only to seek God’s justice, but understand it. We are not to just pray for healing, but understand it. We are not only to pray for the forgiveness of sin, but to understand it. I am certain that God would like us to know the trap of sin and the potential heart of the wicked and the bent of his heart and the desire of the Spirit and the potential of grace.
The apostle spent much time speaking to people about the value of understanding. It was his constant prayer for the Colossian Christians (1:9-10). Philippians 1:9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:5 tell of a connection between our understanding and ability to appropriate the love of God. If we want to grow in the love of God, we must grow in our understanding of God- apparently since it is a prayer that we might “know how deep and wide and high and long” that love is.
I am thankful that the Spirit can get it figured out when I don’t know what to pray. I am delighted that the Son can translate my prayer when I don’t know how to pray. But, I don’t fall back on thinking that I will never be able to know God better to help me in my prayer. We CAN and SHOULD “know the will of God” in many matters which enables us to pray his will with great zeal and conviction. So, on the one hand, God has made provision for our limited understanding and feeble prayer. On the other hand, God has promised greater understanding so we can pray according to his will. The longer I know God and the more I pray, the more I know how to pray and the more I can pray with confidence, understanding his will for which I pray.
I say much of this as I have been seen and heard the disappointment of some in the area of prayer. I have had people tell me that they are unsure of their prayer or unsure of God or feeling as though prayer does not “work” in the light of our son’s recent death. That attitude saddens me. It tells me that their view of prayer may have led to that severe disappointment. It tells me that they may have an unnecessarily limited understanding of the way that God responds to us in prayer. In these cases, some have either failed to rely upon the Holy Spirit to translate the desire of their prayer, or they have had very limited understanding of God will, working and love.
Understanding God’s will is critical to pray. Our prayer life is bolstered and confidence increased when we have a better perspective on God’s will. It helps to know some things about God and his will in order to not become discouraged in prayer. Those who have limited understanding struggle at some points in prayer. Here are some expressions or outcomes when understanding is limited in prayer.
First, heaven, in their view, is a punishment or consolation prize- a lesser answer to prayer or a lesser healing. In their mind, the real reward is “temporal permanence” (a term I just coined”)- keep on breathing here on earth, keep things as they are, improve the present circumstance. It may never be expressed in so many words, but the evidence is clear. I hear discouragement in the voice of some who say with frustration, “I was CONVINCED that he would be healed.” Or, “I was confident that God would hear our prayers.” Or, “I cannot understand why, with so much living to do, God couldn’t have waited a while for him to go home.” The sentiment bleeds through- heaven is not the highest answer to prayer. It is a stop gap or failsafe. We need to beat the curse here as long as possible and prolong our life here. That marginalizes the Biblical understanding of prayer and the longing of the early apostles, who were often crying, ”Maranatha” (Lord, come quickly).
A second expression of limited understanding in prayer that damages the prayer effort is the mechanistic view of prayer. Prayer didn’t “work” as though prayer is primarily a way to get God to do something rather than primarily a way to know God better and express our heart in honest and heartfelt transparency. I have heard that from some. Prayer, then to them, is less about dialogue and more about soliloquy. Prayer is less about hearing and more about telling. Prayer is less about seeking God’s face and more about seeking his hand. Prayer is less about wanting to see and experience his grace in suffering and more about experiencing grace to avoid or escape suffering. To these, prayer just didn’t work. God did not come through. There must be a specific response to prove that prayer works, rather than prayer being the course of our conversation and life with God. When someone says, “I just don’t know if I can pray anymore” they are saying something perilous about ceasing a lifeline of communication with our Savior. That stunningly is a limited understanding of the very nature of prayer. I will never stop talking to either my wife or my God as long as I have breath, regardless of their performance in meeting my needs.
Third is the temptation to connect the success or apparent failure of our prayer completely with our faith or sin or some other human condition. I hear, “we just didn’t pray enough.” I have heard, “was Mitch fully in agreement with the prayer or did he give up?” Another expression was, “I just don’t understand, since so many people of great faith were praying.” As I increase in my understanding, I better understand that God’s answers to prayer are not only about my fervency and faith, but equally about his will and foreknowledge. I hold very loosely a strong connection between how grand my faith is as a condition that warrants God’s response. If God responded to everyone who was full of faith, in exactly the way they wanted, God’s will and plan would be a lesser thing and our faith the greater thing. He would patchwork his will and plan around our fervently prayed desires. We must never expect that God’s movement in response to our prayer is fully contingent upon how much or little faith we have. Faith plays a role. That is Biblical. But, our heart condition is not the only ingredient. His will can never be simply reduced to what faithful people pray.
The reason that I write this is that my prayer life is stronger than ever. I rely heavily upon two actions simultaneously at work. On the one hand, I rely upon the intercession of the Spirit and the Son for my feeble prayer. On the other hand, when I pray for a better understanding of God and his will, I am able to better direct my prayer and expectation for answers.